Crete Or Naxos? Which Greek Island Is Better For You?

crete or naxos

So, you’re trying to decide between Crete or Naxos, eh? It’s safe to say that you won’t be alone in that this summer. These are two of the most alluring isles in Greece. Both boast shimmering beaches of white sand, azure waters, charming villages where saganaki cheese is sizzled next to fresh-caught fish – the whole holiday shebang!

But there are distinct differences between the two places that should make it easy for you to settle on the one that’s right for you. Those are what we’ll focus in on in this guide to Crete or Naxos, which outlines the difference between the sands, the ease of travel, the nightlife, the history, and a whole load more.

You’ll notice that each isle has its own unique character. On the one hand, there’s Crete, the largest island in the country, where soaring mountains descend to cities built in the Venetian era. On the other, there’s Naxos. One of the hubs of the Cyclades islands, it’s considered an R&R mecca and a great place to enjoy traditional Aegean food and history. Let’s dive in a little deeper…

Ease of travel

arrive at either island by plane or ferry
Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

Crete is undoubtedly the easier island to get to here, mainly because it has not one, but two international airports, while Naxos has just one and it’s 100% domestic (it’s only served by two airlines, which run direct hops to Athens and back throughout the main season). What’s more, the arrival options on Crete are at either end of the island – one in Chania, the other in Heraklion. That makes it a cinch to get to both coasts and different regions. 

You can take a ferry from Athens to Naxos in around four hours. Most of the connections that run through the Cyclades islands going either east-west or west-east in the Aegean make a stop here, so there are plenty of options. Crete is trickier to get to by boat. It usually takes about six hours by ferry from the Greek capital. Other services run overnight.

Once on the islands, you’ll find Naxos easier to explore just because it is so much smaller than Crete. Despite being the largest of the Cyclades, Naxos is only 430 square kilometers compared with Crete’s 8,450 square kilometers. A car hire can really help on both, but be wary of unpaved mountain roads on Crete especially!

Winner: Crete – the two airports win it here.

Nightlife

Crete has the better nightlife of the two islands thanks to wild Malia.
Photo by Aurelien Lemasson Theobald on Unsplash

Nightlife is one of the main reasons people visit Crete. The town of Malia has a serious reputation for partying and is the chosen destination for thousands of young people who flock there every year looking to dance and drink till dawn. You’ll find the main strip packed with bars offering discounts, games, theme nights, competitions, and all manner of alcohol-fuelled debauchery. 

You can find more clubs in Sissi, Sitia, Stalis and Elounda, plus some lively spots in the cities of Heraklion and Chania, which have a much more local scene. Most of the touristy resort towns have some after-dark activity, although it’ll likely be of a more mellow nature than that found in Malia, which is no-holes-barred from May to September.

The nightlife on Naxos is overshadowed by its livelier neighbors: Mykonos with its Ibiza-esque club scene and wild Ios, the party hub of the Cyclades. But Naxos does know how to throw a party, mainly in Naxos Town, where you’ll find an atmospheric waterfront filled with late-night tavernas perfect for after-dinner drinks, some lively bars, and clubs dishing out a chaotic mix of Greek and European dance music. Elsewhere in Naxos, you’ll find laid-back lounges serving sunset cocktails in all of the resort towns.

Winner: Naxos is no slouch after dark, but Crete takes the win for nightlife.

History

The marble door of the unfinished temple of Apollo on Naxos, is a stunning place to visit.
Photo by Lisa Boonaerts on Unsplash

Crete, like most of Greece, is a history hunter’s dream. The most popular site has to be Knossos. This archaeological gem was once the capital of the ancient Minoan civilization and contained the palace where the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur took place. To explore a less crowded Minoan archeological site, try the Palace of Phaistos, then visit the Heraklion Archeological Museum to see relics of the Bronze Age, Neolithic Age, Venetian and Roman eras.

History buffs should also take a trip to the old leper colony of Spinalonga to hear its fascinating history, visit the Venetian walls of Heraklion and Chania, and the 16th-century Roman Fortress in Rethymnon. You could also explore the many monasteries and religious sanctuaries that dot the island.

Visitors to Naxos might feel as though they’ve stepped into the pages of Greek Mythology, as legends abound on this particular island. Be sure to visit Portara, the marble doorway that’s all that remains of an unfinished Temple to Apollo dating back more than 2,000 years. This is the place where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, and where she subsequently married Dionysus. 

The magnificent marble Temple for Demeter is an important site to know of. It’s recently been restored using as much of the original marble as possible and is a wonderful window onto ancient building styles and architecture.

Winner: Crete wins this one because of the sheer importance of its ancient Minoan sites.

Food and Drink

Both Crete and Naxos offer delicious traditional greek food wit their own twist.
Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Naxos is known as the greenest of the Cyclades islands. Oodles of produce grows in its fertile inland valleys and it has a rep for making some of the freshest veg in the country. Unusually for a Greek island, the emphasis is not on seafood but on the cattle, roosters, rabbits, and goats that graze the fields, and the potatoes, citrus fruits, wild herbs, and walnuts that grow in abundance. 

You can expect signature dishes rich in flavor, featuring slow-cooked meats, excellent olive oil, silky honey, and a fierce preference for everything locally sourced. And, plenty of Kitron, a local spirit made from citrus leaves, to wash it all down with!

Crete is another of the Greek islands with a reputation for delicious food, all of which is a little different from what you find elsewhere in Greece. One of the staples of their menu is cheese. Almost every village on the island makes its own cheese from sheep or goat’s milk and sometimes a blend of the two. The varieties are endless; you’ll find it popping up on most meals and baked into delicious pies. 

Crete is also known for producing some of Greece’s finest olive oil, seasoning its food with wild mountain greens and herbs, and a wine-making tradition that goes back thousands of years. And if you’re feeling brave, try the chochlioi boubouristi, snails fried in flour, oil, and wine. 

Winner: It’s a draw. The cuisine of both islands is actually famous across Greece.

Beaches

Greece has some of the best beaches in the world
Photo by Vladimir Carrer on Unsplash

The Greek islands are home to some of the best beaches in the world, and neither of these – Naxos or Crete – will let you down. 

Crete is home to the famously photogenic Elafonissi Beach. It’s one of the few in Europe – nay, the whole world – with pastel pink sand made from crushed red coral and shells. And if pink isn’t your color, how about Xi Beach’s therapeutic orange clay sand, or the black sand of almost inaccessible Aspes? 

Amongst Crete’s 300 beaches, you’ll definitely find a shade of sand and a beach vibe to suit you. Choose from beaches with freshwater rivers, tropical palm trees, rows of sun loungers and watersports stations, or deserted coves with no one else for miles. 

Naxos is all about long white and golden sand beaches with calm crystal-clear waters perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and lazing the days away. Beautiful Plaka is often named one of Greece’s best beaches, while Agios Georgios is the best for families and anyone wanting to be close to the facilities of Naxos Town. 

Head to Agia Anna to party in a beach club, Mikri Vigla for the best windsurfing spot, and the Aliko beaches to sunbathe amidst a protected cedar forest. Intrepid explorers should head to the east coast for some almost deserted gems. 

Winner: Definitely a draw, the beaches of Naxos and Crete are just stunning.

Nature

Caves, mountains and natural wonders are abundant on the Greek islands.
Photo by Ksenia Kudelkina on Unsplash

It’s not all about the beaches. Both these islands have their fair share of inland wonders, too. Naxos is more mountainous than the rest of the Cyclades and has a hilly green interior crisscrossed with hiking paths. The most popular trail will take you to the top of 1,400-meter-high Mount Zas, the tallest mountain in the Cyclades and reputedly the birthplace of Zeus – although that claim is up for dispute! 

In fact, Crete has a cave that it claims was the birthplace of Zeus, and the great king of the gods was supposedly raised atop 2,500-meter-high Mount Ida, the highest in Crete. Whether it’s true or not, both are impressive sights, as are the other mountains ranging through Crete’s surprisingly rugged interior. Amongst these mountains, you’ll find Samaria Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe and one of Crete’s most popular attractions. It takes around six hours to walk from one end to the other and offers dramatically beautiful views and an abundance of birds and wildlife. 

Winner: Crete wins this one for the drama of Samaria Gorge.

Cities

Cities are rare on greek islands but you'll find a few on Crete.
Photo by Chris King on Unsplash

Cities are a rare commodity on Greek islands, but Crete is home to several of them, including Chania, one of the most beautiful cities in Greece. Delve in there to find a colorful old town, fantastic architecture, and a lovely Venetian harbor. Heraklion is the largest city, though. It’s the island’s capital and the starting place for many activities, tours, and boat trips. It’s a great place to stay if you want to be in a modern hub of restaurants, shops, and bars but have history and beaches on the side.

On Naxos, it’s all about Naxos Town, also called Chora. The main part of the island and the center of the shopping, dining, and nightlife scenes, this is where many people choose to stay to be in the middle of things. It’s a beautiful town, home to the magical Portara, and filled with white Grecian buildings. The winding streets lead up to the 13th-century hill-top Venetian Castle, which is great for sunset watching and romantic strolls.  

Winner: We love Naxos Town, but Crete wins for having a wider choice of cities.

Nearby islands and day trips

Aerial view of Naxos
Photo by Envato Elements

One of the most popular things to do on a Greek vacation is to hop around as many beautiful islands as possible. Naxos, in the middle of the Cyclades island group, is ideally located for this kind of holiday.

Visitors can easily take ferries or charter boats to some of Greece’s most famous and popular islands, like romantic Santorini and glamorous Mykonos, which can both be reached in under 90 minutes. Meanwhile, a trip to Paros can take as little as 25 minutes when the conditions are right. Or you could do day trips to the conveniently close smaller Cyclades Islands, which include such lesser-known gems as barely visited Donoussa and pristine Koufonisia.

Unfortunately, Crete, as the most southern of all the Greek islands, does not make for the best island-hopping base. Although ferries do run between Crete and some of the other popular islands, the journeys are not quick.

Depending on conditions (and the type of boat you travel on), it takes between four and eight hours to reach Santorini or Mykonos, and getting to Rhodes is always going to be an overnight journey. But don’t lose heart, because there are several islets and uninhabited islands much closer to Crete, and a trip to see their deserted beaches and learn their fascinating histories might be all you need to quench your island-hopping thirst. 

Winner: Naxos wins this for island hopping ease.

For couples

Boat in Crete
Photo by Envato Elements

Neither of these islands will disappoint on the honeymoon or minimoon front. That said, each one is probably suited to different sorts of couples. Let’s begin with Naxos…

This rock in the heart of the Cyclades is just about perfect for folks after that classic hit of Greek island vacationing. It’s got the whitewashed, cubist villages. It’s home to a whole west coast of lovely beachfronts, and there’s the impossibly romantic vision of the main town, Hora. All that adds up to make it a great option for honeymooners who want R&R, plenty of sunbathing time, good hotels, and good food.

Crete’s not quite the same. Wilder, rougher, and a whole load larger, it’s way better aligned for adventure-hungry couples. We’re talking the loved-up duos whose idea of a honeymoon is a five-hour hike through sheer-cut gorges. Head to southern Crete and you can walk the Aradena gorge to secret beaches that no one knows about. Go to the heart of the island and there are sleepy highland villages in the shadow of 2,400-meter-high peaks where you can be alone together. It’s a different vibe for sure.

Winner: No winner. It really depends on what you’re after.

Hotels

Hotel in Greece
Photo by Envato Elements

When it comes down to sheer numbers, there’s really no competition in it: Naxos has just over 430 individual hotel choices, while Crete tops out at a whopping 6,400! That’s to be expected considering the huge size difference in these two places, but also means you can get basically any sort of accommodation you’re after in the most southerly isle, from self-catering aparthotels for 18-30s partiers to romantic hotels with views of the Libyan Sea.

Here are just a few examples of what we consider to be the top hotels in Crete:

  • Aelios Design Hotel ($$) – A fantastic stay that’s built in the style of a traditional Greek village, with cozy cottage-style rooms that have rough brick walls and elegant bathrooms. It’s your ticket to the sleepy southern town of Hora Sfakion, a gateway to great gorges and clear-water pebble beaches.
  • Villa Athermigo ($$) – An inland stay with real character, this one’s all about retreating to the bucolic heart of central Crete. There’s a shared pool and lush olive groves in attendance.
  • Star Beach Village & Water Park ($$) – One for the families, this seaside hotel has its own on-site waterpark complete with a make-believe pirate ship.

Naxos might have fewer hotels but there’s still a good range on offer. Plus, the island really shines when it comes to stylish boutique lodges aimed at couples; places close to the beach and armed with frills like swimming pools and spas. Check them out…

  • Argo Boutique Hotel ($$-$$$) – A really lovely spot with whitewashed villas that have access to a swimming pool and a complete spa facility. One to consider if you’re heading to Naxos on the honeymoon.
  • Annio Studios ($$) – Highly rated Annio Studios are a series of beautiful homes on the east coast that come with splash pools and solarium terraces for sunbathing on.
  • Taki’s Guests ($$) – Channel the local character by opting to stay in this bolthole in the midst of Naxos town. It’s proper Cycladic stuff – all whitewashed, tight-knit, and charming from top to toe.

Winner: Crete because of the sheer number of hotel options there.

Crete or Naxos? The Conclusion

The stunning pink sands of Elafonissi beach, Crete.
Photo by Alexandra Tran on Unsplash

So if you’ve been paying attention you’ll have noticed that it’s 5:2 to Crete at the end of our roundup. But don’t take that win as the final word. It’s important to decide what you want from your vacation before you make your choice. If it’s history, archeology, nightlife, or a choice of city stays, then yes, you probably should head to Crete. But if your dream Greek vacation involves island hopping your heart out, immersing yourself in mythology, or staying somewhere that’s smaller, easier to explore, and feels more like an island, Naxos surely wins out.

Reece Toth

Reece is the creator and editor of Travel Snippet. He has visited more than 38 countries over a 10-year period. His travels have taken him through the majestic mountains of Italy, into the cities of central Europe, across the islands of Indonesia, and to the beaches of Thailand, where he is currently living. He is passionate about travel and shares his expertise by providing the best travel tips and tricks to help you plan your next adventure.

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